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It’s nearing 9 PM when the ranger on duty arrives to usher us onto the Chicken Crab trail. All of us are wearing sneakers for added protection. The trail is strewn with long vines covered with inch-long thorns. Even the slightest scratch from these barbs will result in a lot of pain which will linger for days, the ranger warns.

We stop at a large rubbish pile of a few meters away from an abandoned bungalow. A nearby sign states “No Littering” in large red letters. Some members of the tour group are puzzled; what are we doing at the trash disposal center?

“Just wait a moment and you’ll soon find out,” the ranger says.

It doesn’t take more than two minutes before eerie things start happening. An empty can of sardines seems to be walking towards us. The crunching sounds of plastic water bottles and empty beer cans on the move get louder by the second. If I hadn’t known better I would have thought this was a script from a monster horror flick.

We switch our flashlights to turbo mode and gasp in awe at the sight before us: the ground is literally moving, swarming with hundreds of hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes.

The Surin Islands, like other islands in the Andaman Sea, are inhabited by millions of hermit crabs. These omnivorous creatures patrol the beaches and forests of these paradise islands, ingesting anything they deem edible, from decaying fruit to fish carcasses. They play an important role in keeping the islands free of waste; without them, the islands would be overrun with refuse.

The ranger flips over a leaf to reveal a gathering of juveniles, so small that half a dozen would easily fit on a fingernail. Another ranger disappears into the bush, emerging a minute later with a Coenobita brevimanus specimen weighing nearly half a kilo in weight, shell included.

As I reach out to examine the specimen the ranger pulls my hand back. “The claws on these crabs are very powerful,” he warns. “One nip can shear flesh clean off of bone. With no hospital nearby, I suggest you mind your distance.”

One of the tour members lets out a giggle and we all turn our attention back to the rubbish pile. The sardine can which was walking towards us is now at the edge of the forest. At first glace the sight is comical; a giant hermit crab has inhabited the can and is using it as a home!

Closer investigation reveals that this canned crustacean is not alone in its fashion faux pas. On the contrary, it looks to be a fast-growing trend.

Within minutes we uncover a whole society of misfits defined by their selection of housing: an athletic jock sporting a shuttlecock for a home; a sorry bartender bearing a broken whiskey bottle on its back; a traveling shoe salesman nestled inside a discarded toddler’s tennis shoe.

The group is fascinated and amused by this incredible show of ingenuity from creatures endowed with brains the size of thumbtacks. I, on the other hand, am feeling slightly disturbed.

Why are these creatures reverting to garbage to find suitable housing? Is it just a natural phenomenon or a result of human interference with the environment in some way? Could it be a byproduct of unchecked pollution which is threatening the eco-balance of the park?

The answer was simple: there is a shortage of shells large enough to house the bigger crabs.

“In the past we had a lot more shells” the ranger recalled. Over the past few years, shells have been taken from the islands and now they are very scarce.”

In other words, we humans are responsible for this curious behavior.

While the possession of coral is a punishable offence, there is no rule prohibiting the collection of seashells. With over 30,000 tourists frequenting the park every year, the amount of shells gathered for private collections is nothing short of appalling. Shells and bits of coral are often collected as memorabilia by visitors who wish to take home a piece of paradise. The Mokien also collect shells and sell them to retailers who in turn offer them as souvenirs or exotic décor to foreigners throughout Phuket and Krabi.

What visitors fail to grasp is that by collecting seashells, they are literally dooming these crustaceans to an early grave. All species of hermit crabs require the shells of marine gastropods to survive; without it, their soft abdomen would be exposed to predation by other creatures. As these crabs age, they increase in size and weight, requiring them to exchange their smaller domicile for a larger one.

A hermit crab in its natural environment, with proper diet and housing can live for up to 30 years or more, with some scientists claiming to have found specimens over 70 years old. Due to a shortage of large shells however, few ever survive to that ripe old age.

In an effort to balance the odds, the park has resorted to purchasing shells wholesale from dealers. The shells are cleaned and stacked in piles throughout the island. These mounds of free housing are lifesavers for the crabs and most deposits are cleared out within a matter of days.

Still, the issue remains in finding shells big enough to house the largest of the crustacean community. Large shells are coveted by retailers and can fetch a handsome price. The park’s limited budget cannot afford the outrageous prices most seashell vendors demand.

At dawn the following morning, I take a stroll down the quiet beach. I spot an enormous hermit crab, much like the ones in the rubbish heap the night before. This individual is homeless, wandering the sand in hopes of finding a suitable shell. It’s a pitiful sight and one which conveys a sense of sorrow I cannot express. I know that without protection, this poor creature, which may be older than my son, will quickly die from exposure or predation while I can only watch on helplessly.

What hurts the most is the knowledge that this poor creature’s predicament could have been avoided if it weren’t for our childish fixation for souvenirs and shiny trinkets. What we collect or trade for with meaningless cash are items which other creatures rely on for their basic survival. What brings life to others we choose to display on a mantelpiece at home, collecting dust and benefiting no one.

As I prepare to board the boat which will take me back to the mainland, I pause to ponder what I have learned from this experience: Before I take something for my own gratification or pleasure, I will consider what repercussion my actions may lead to. Before I consider bringing home a pretty shell from the beach, I will always be reminded of that homeless hermit, hopelessly wandering the beach in search of refuge.

We as the dominant species on this planet were tasked with the care and protection of all species, great and small which reside with us. I think we sometimes forget our responsibility to Mother Nature; instead of serving and protecting, we act like spoiled children, demanding so much yet offering so little in return.

I hope that others will one day share my sentiment and think twice before taking, from nature, something that we ourselves have no need for, whether it is for pleasure or enjoyment.

Individuals interested in supporting the project to supply homes for hermit crabs on Surin Island can offer donations towards the purchase of shells. Likewise, those with shell collections who are willing to return them to nature can mail their lot to the national park office at the address below.

Surin Islands National Park
Kuraburi Municipality, Kuraburi, Phang Nga Province, Thailand, 82000

Categories: Conservation

One Response so far.

  1. David Ellison says:

    Hi Guys

    Have you thought about using recycled plastic bottles to 3D print artificial shells for the Hermit crabs?
    Such equipment is available and not very expensive

    best regards

    David

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